Magical thinking and Jesus

Context. Without context, a star can hover over a house, because that’s the way our creative understanding works. In the context of astrophysics, that star idea is nonsensical. Without context, Jesus was a Christian and the Jews hated him. In the context of his time and place, there were no Christians. He lived in the middle of an area occupied by pig-eating, beard-shaving, idolatrous Westerners. He lived in the middle of 200 years of constant uprisings by religious fundamentalists. Reading his words in context, it is obvious that he was a Jew, he hated the Romans, most Jews loved him, and Romans hated him.

Paul's legacy: nonsensical magical thinking

The genius of Paul was in seeing that by removing context and putting everything into the mythic realm, a universal religion could be created that wasn’t tied to the foibles of its anointed fountainhead. In this case, by decontextualizing Jesus, he became no longer a Jew (John says things like “Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him” – John 5: 18). He became no longer an adversary of Rome, no longer a Zealot, no longer gay… he becomes instead a mythic god, independent of the realities of history, independent of the laws of the universe. “Magic Jesus“, in the song by Tim Minchin.

Whether Paul understood this consciously and deliberately planned it, or whether he believed the visions from his own epileptic seizures, we may never know. But Paul is the creator of the post-Jewish “Christianity”.

The Gospels are written in an episodic way, highlighting some aspects of Jesus’ teachings, camouflaging other uncomfortable aspects, turning Jesus’ Jewishness upside down to make him more acceptable to Roman listeners and the Roman Empire, blending him with Mithras and Apollo. The Gospels swaddle him in miracles not just “from birth to death”, not even just “from womb to tomb”, but, in words originating in another context, “from the erection to the resurrection”. The very bookends of his life are so unbelievable that many people nowadays suspect he never existed at all.

So Jesus becomes a myth, a spiritual reality, an archetype. Like others before him in the preliterate world, he attains godhood. The historical person didn’t, of course – the historical person is dead and buried. But the story lives and grows and transmutes, constantly evolving to resonate more deeply with more people. All this is natural, inherent in human tendencies, and can be very useful for personal growth…

But magical thinking is a lousy basis for government policy decisions. Especially regarding the science curriculum for schools and universities.


Magical thinking and the Star of Bethlehem

The trouble with the Star of Bethlehem story is that stars are not what they appear to be to children and the uneducated. Yes, they look like fireflies or distant candles, and therefore can be imagined to float through the air like glowing fairies to hover over a house and point it out as special. Maybe they can think. Talk. Smile.

A star. (Note: not entirely credible, scientifically...)

However, being a minimum of 25,000 times the mass of our planet, this isn’t something that they can actually do. They only look like fireflies because they’re trillions of miles away. They’re pretty big, really.

Humans are designed for pattern recognition, and to seek out cause and effect, and to think visually, and to construct explanatory narratives and stories. “Sing me a song! Tell me a story! Read me a book!” A simple story is the most effective way to communicate an abstract concept – that’s why Jesus told parables. But this excellent intellectual tool of ours also has a downside: when our perception is limited or our understanding is incomplete, we use imagination to fill the gap. And our imagination springs from the dream world, not the physical world.

So we have no difficulty with the idea of Santa visiting all the world’s children in a single night. Or with the idea that, if we just get into the right frame of mind, we will be able to hear speech (in our own language!) from animals and trees. Or that we could walk around on the clouds if we could jump up there. Or that when people and animals die and get buried they are still around, you can still see them and talk with them under the right conditions. Or that we can influence the future with a rhyme or a ritual, control dice with a thought or a wish, produce rain by prayer…

We are born with that magical view of the world. It is very effective in keeping us optimistic, healthy, social and creative. Internally, it works. But externally? Sadly deficient.

Enjoy the stories that resonate with you, think about the images that feel powerful, give thanks (to the power of evolution) for the songs and landscapes that you love… but don’t conflate internal emotional power with external physical reality. Carlos Castaneda never turned into a crow, no matter how much peyote he consumed. There is no Easter Bunny. Nor angels, nor talking snakes, nor people ascending up in the air to live in “heaven”.

And regardless of how vivid your imagination is, nothing that has 25,000 times the mass of the Earth is going to hover over a house. Not in the real world. Sorry.

Unasked questions: How big was the Star of Bethlehem?

The story of the Wise Men following the star is in Matthew 2: 9 “When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.”

It led them, and stopped over where Jesus was.

Obviously, this star was very close to the Earth. Maybe as high as a modern skyscraper over the place Jesus was. Say 1,000 feet. If it was as far away as the Moon, it wouldn’t be leading them and then stopping over where Jesus was. It was a lot closer than the Sun is. A lot closer than the next star, which is 25,277,000,000,000 miles away (4.3 light years, yes, that’s over 25 trillion miles).

Here’s the problem: the smallest that a star can be is 80 times the size of Jupiter, and Jupiter is over 300 times the mass of the Earth. Smaller than that, and the object can’t undergo nuclear fusion. So, to be a star, it has to be at least 25,000 times as massive as the Earth, and even then it would only be a red dwarf. If you want a white star, it has to be 10 times larger still.

Unfortunately, if anything that size came anywhere near the Earth, our planet would be dragged right into it and disappear like a pebble tossed into a pond.

So either the story of “the star leading them, and then stopping over the house” is complete nonsense, or else you have to say “It wasn’t what we would call a star today – it was a light which they thought was a star, because they didn’t have our modern understanding.” Fine. And by the same reasoning you can say “The Burning Bush with the voice of God wasn’t actually a burning bush with the voice of God, it was a phenomenon that Moses didn’t understand and thought was a burning bush with the voice of God… and the vision of Jesus that Paul had wasn’t really a vision of Jesus, he just thought it was Jesus… and the thing called God all through the Bible isn’t really God, it’s just a series of experiences and phenomena that pre-scientific peoples thought was God, because they didn’t have out modern understanding.”

Congratulations, and welcome to the real world! You are now free of religion. Go in peace.

What the Romans knew of the Universe

We think, with some justification, of the Greeks as thinkers and the Romans as doers. This doesn’t mean the Romans were ignorant. They commonly used Greek slaves as teachers for their children, and Greek learning was known to educated people throughout the Roman Empire – partly because the Greeks themselves lived throughout the Empire. The Ptolemys ruling Egypt, who included Cleopatra, were Greeks.

Reconstruction of Eratosthenes' map of the world

According to the history books, it was the Greeks who first suggested that our earth is a sphere. Aristotle argued this in On the Heavens around 340 BC. First, you always see the sails of a ship coming over the horizon first and only later its hull, which suggests that the surface of the ocean is curved. Second, he realized that the eclipses of the Moon were caused by the Earth casting its shadow on the moon. Third, the Greeks knew that the North Star appears higher on the northern firmament and lower in the south. Aristotle explained this correctly with the parallactic shift that occurs when moving between two observation points on a spherical object. Separately, the idea that the sun rather than the earth was the center of the universe was proposed by the Pythagoreans and by Aristarchus of Samos around 270 BC. (However, Aristotle dismissed the idea of this heliocentrism.)

Around 240 BC Eratosthenes (Libyan-born, living in Alexandria in Egypt) calculated the circumference of the earth; he knew that the sun was directly overhead at Aswan on the summer solstice; he observed from the shadow of a vertical pole that on that day the sun was a fraction over 7 degrees off from vertical in Alexandria (almost due north of Aswan); and, from generations of Pharaonic surveyors, he knew the distance between the two places: 5,000 stadia. He gave the earth’s circumference as 252,000 stadia. Depending on whether he meant the standard Greek stadium or the Egyptian stadium, he was accurate to within either 16% or 2% of the earth as it is.

He also calculated the distances to the moon and to the sun, and was reasonably correct about the moon (and possibly extremely accurate about the sun). Having created the armillary sphere when he was 20, and originated the term “geography”, and created a useful map of the known world, he still had time to be an athlete and a poet.

Uneducated people 250 years later in Palestine thought that a bright star had moved across the sky and stayed over the house in Bethlehem where a certain child was born. For them, the heavens were the physical abode of God and his messengers, a mile or two above the earth, up in the clouds with the sun, moon and stars.

Well-educated Greeks and Romans were beyond such nonsense.